A Summer Reading List To Move, Inspire, & Educate Your Whole Family

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In 1939, shortly ahead of the London Blitz, three school girls were evacuated to the home of C.S. Lewis, just outside Oxford. So begins the classic story they inspired, in which the four Pevensie children are sent to the countryside during the war and discover that a wardrobe in the house is a portal to Narnia. Children's literature has always offered an escape and a way to process the events of everyday life. As we head into the summer of 2020, with much of normal programming suspended and many of the places we would go off-limits, the proverbial summer reading list has taken on a greater importance.

Selected for young readers, young-adult readers, and adult readers (yes, we are all still learning), the books below will take you into the lives of characters with very different experiences. Some overtly tackle race relations, and some depict Black families experiencing moments of joy, while others examine environmental justice and white privilege in the upper echelon of influence. Some are books to read together; some alone. Each is humanist, has moments of real beauty, and will leave you a better person.

Picture Books

Lift by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat

Disney-Hyperion

Perhaps the power structure that children understand best is the epic relationship with their siblings. Iris, noted big sister, loves to push the elevator buttons for her family when they enter their apartment building. It's her thing, until one day her little brother steals her thunder. When the elevator breaks, Iris rescues the call button from a trash can and installs it on her bedroom wall. There, she finds it can transport her out of her room and into worlds beyond. She begins to explore, each time called back by the intrusions of life — a babysitter, her brother's cries — finding, eventually, that the adventure is better with someone else there to experience it with you. With art that glows like a planet spinning into sunlight, Lift is a winning companion to Le and Santat's previous collaboration, Drawn Together.

Read Romper's interview with Santat and Lê here.

Hike by Pete Oswald

Candlewick

Told without words, Pete Oswald's story takes us through an early-morning wakeup for a father and son and into the mountains, where they observe, explore, and create a tiny piece of history together. Gently concerned with impact and stewardship, it leaves its footprint on the reader.

Saturday by Oge Mora

Little, Brown, Books for Young Readers

Not all children take summer holidays for granted, nor their weekends — their parents work. Saturday, Oge Mora's 2019 instant-classic, gives us a look at the one day of the week that a mom is able to spend time with her daughter — a day that holds a weight of expectation for both mother and child, programmed down to the minute so they make the most of it. "Whoosh! Off they go."

But when the day doesn't go as planned, the mom feels she has let her daughter down. A book full of empathy for working parenthood and committed to the belief that all our kids need is us, Mora's unique art, collaged from colored paper and mixed media, is a bright reminder of what we have, even when we have very little.

Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

The urgency with which we convey important names from Black history to our children sometimes omits the sense of community and family that surrounded those names in their time. This poetic book by Ntozake Shange from 2004 restores the moments from her childhood when people like W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington would gather in her house, not as heroes, but people celebrating and mourning together.

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, Illustrated by Michaela Goade

Roaring Brook Press

Opposition to the Dakota Pipeline flickered briefly over the news in 2019, but Indigenous people fighting against a separate incursion in Canada this year have gone largely unnoticed. Carole Lindstrom offers a telling aimed at young readers, in which a girl stands up against the black snake that threatens her people's water. She is a water protector, as we all must be.

The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper

Chronicle Books

When Mimi finds that wild words are being lost, generation to generation, she asks her granddaughter to learn and keep them. The two traverse Mimi's garden, finding dandelions and blackberries — words we don't teach anymore, and words lost from the dictionary as items like "laptop" punt them into the void. Madeline Kloepper's illustrations capture both the wildness and the richness of a grandparent's home to a grandchild, and Brooke Smith's story is about conserving their bond and their connection to the land — you need to be able to name something to miss it.

I Have an Idea by Hervé Tullet

Chronicle Books

King of lateral thinking Hervé Tullet, who created Press Here, released I Have an Idea in 2019, giving kids another way into their creative mindset. As they turn the pages, they can watch an idea grow. A book that will expand in the mind of the reader, it also folds up very neatly and should fit on most bookshelves.

More recommendations:

10 Children's Books Handling Race and Identity In A Smart Way (Romper)

100 Progressive Books For Children (Romper)

8 Neurodiverse Childrens' Books That We Don't Take For Granted (Romper)

9 Children's Books About Food And Culture That Are Good Enough To Eat (Romper)

Spectacular Reads By Black Authors & Illustrators (Oge Mora)

Black Boy Joy: 12 Outstanding Books Featuring Black Male Protagonists (Black Parent Magazine)

31 Children’s Books Starring Black Characters Your Kids Will Love (Romper)

Middle-Grade & Young-Adult Books

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim

Kokila

Yumi is stifled by her shyness, her Koreanness, where other kids are concerned, and her parents' insistence that she spend the summer taking test prep. She would rather be taking a secret YouTube course in standup comedy — which she does, under cover of someone else's name, finding that what is mortifying during real life can be comedy gold. Named a most-anticipated middle-grade book of 2020 by Brightly.

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Donte is "the Black brother" and Trey is the lighter-skinned brother who never seems to get into trouble at Middlefield Prep. Refracting the whiteness all around them, the brothers experience the world differently. After a run-in with the reigning alpha at school, Donte works to beat him in a fencing competition.

Read Romper's interview between Jewell Parker Rhodes and her daughter, novelist Kelly McWilliams, here.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Balzer + Bray

Teenager Starr lives a double life, living in a Black neighborhood, but attending a private, largely white high school. When her friend Khalil is killed by the police one night when the two are driving home, two worlds that she has been able to switch between — reflected in Angie Thomas' use of mimicry and dialectic subtleties — collide.

Thomas' book came about after she pitched an agent on a Twitter call for diverse authors, and while her 2017 depiction of police brutality was nothing new then, it remains a crucial topic for examination three years on.

Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams

Little, Brown, Books for Young Readers

Agnes has grown up in the cultish town of Red Creek under the leadership of The Prophet when she meets a boy from the Outside. Her own family are vulnerable — they can't afford the insulin her brother needs to survive — so she escapes. On the Outside, she finds a viral pandemic* has torn through the population, and she might play a part in stopping it.

*Yes, quite the timing.

I'll Be the One by Lyla Lee

Harper Collins

Lyla Lee, author of the Mindy Kim middle-grade series, hit the YA scene with a bang when I'll Be the One began collecting reviews recently. It comes out June 16 and follows Skye, a girl whose dream is to become the first plus-size K-Pop star through a televised competition for the next big star. Taking on Korean beauty standards and a crushy competitor all at once, Skye brings a ton of heart. Critics are already raving about this book, which BTS fans are guaranteed to love. (Stay tuned next year for more Mindy Kim.)

Read Lyla Lee's essay on Romper about being the new kid in school.

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, illustrated by Victoria Jamieson and Iman Geddy

Dial Books

Omar and his little brother, Hassan, who is nonverbal, live in a refugee camp in Kenya, with no fast way out — days drag into weeks into years as they wait to hear about resettlement in another country, until Omar has a chance to go to school. He could perhaps save them both, but would have to leave his brother behind. A graphic novel based on interviews with Omar Mohamed, a refugee living in the United States, When Stars Are Scattered earned a glowing spot in the New York Times Book Review.

The Magic Misfits series by Neil Patrick Harris

Little, Young, Books for Young Readers

If you're just arriving to The Magic Misfits, congrats! You've got just enough time to read the first three books before the finale comes out this September. Neil Patrick Harris gives us six illusionists who team up to fight a bunch of crooked carnies (!) in a tiny New England town. They are, as advertised, misfits, and readers will enjoy the sense of belonging that develops as the series develops.

More recommendations:

Spring 2020 Middle Grade Spotlight (Publishers Weekly)

The Most-Anticipated Middle Grade & Chapter Books of 2020 (Brightly)

Diverse Realistic Chapter Books for Middle School by #OwnVoices (Imagination Soup)

Adult Fiction & Non-Fiction

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Riverhead Books

Those who found Brit Bennett through her 2016 novel, The Mothers, will have something deep to sink their teeth into this summer with her followup, The Vanishing Half. Beginning in a small town in Louisiana in the 1960s, we meet two twins, Stella and Desiree, one of whom has lighter skin. Set on a better life than their parents experienced, the two escape to New Orleans, where Stella finds she passes as white. She leaves her sister Desiree behind, along with her sense of Blackness. Released on June 2, The Vanishing Half has already been lauded as a brilliant look at race and sisterhood, and a must-read this summer.

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

Doubleday Books

A new dystopia, in a year that often felt like one, Blue Ticket is named for the system in which young girls are given either a blue ticket (no children) or a white ticket (children). Calla decides to rebel against her assignment (no children), risking terror for unknown reward. Sophie Mackintosh previously wrote The Water Cure, which was long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Farrah Strauss & Giroux

The sense of reverence with which you might open Paul Beatty's masterpiece, which won the 2016 Man Booker Prize, is blown away on the first page by Beatty's sharp-as-knives satire. Forget about praising the book, just try to keep up with the author. The Sellout follows a Black man who decides to reintroduce segregation in his neighborhood of Los Angeles, "Dickens," where he sells weed and watermelons. After his terrible father, whose crimes are remarked upon in lively disconnect, is killed by police, the hero rides through the streets on his horse with his father's body. Nothing is simple here, and no one — the well-intentioned, the intellectual, the racism-attuned — is safe from Beatty's critique. Keep it on all the lists always.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Penguin Random

What if? Curtis Sittenfeld previously explored the hypothetical subconscious of Laura Bush in her bestseller American Wife, and has returned to make fictional history in asking: What if Hillary never married Bill? An expert at unpacking the thought processes and self-conscious interior narratives of her characters, Sittenfeld has long teased taking on Hillary (neé Rodham) Clinton, and now delivers at a time when the 2016 loss of Clinton's presidential campaign feels like the moment an entire nation fell through the trapdoor into the Upside Down.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Vintage

We fell in love with Samantha Irby after reading We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, which delivered a shock of humility and embarrassment at self and life, the likes of which we simply hadn't seen bound and placed on a bookshelf before. Yes, life is a hilarious, horrifying spectacle! Irby is back with a new book of essays, promising to find the lack of dignity in book clubs, meetings with TV executives, suburban life, and her own body.

The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell'antonia

G.P. Putnam's Sons

Who among us does not love a restaurant feud? KJ Dell'antonia gives us a crackling saga between Chicken Mimi's and Chicken Frannie's that goes back three generations. Thirty-five-year-old widow Amanda Moore grew up on one side of the divide before marrying herself over the gulf, and enters the two chicken shacks in a reality TV competition to sort out the true winner. Once her sister takes a side, it is all burners lit in the tiny town of Merinac, Kansas.

Everything Isn't Terrible by Kathleen Smith

Hachette Books

If you aren't yet subscribed to Dr. Kathleen Smith's newsletter, The Anxious Overarchiever, sign up after you've ordered a copy of her book Everything Isn't Terrible, which freshens up pop psychology. You will read your supposedly secret behaviors and thought processes called out swiftly as standard coping mechanisms, and then gently disarmed. Most importantly, in a year of upheaval and stress (and children who never leave the house), you will feel better about yourself — just one person of many worrying more than perhaps they need to.

More recommendations:

The Best New Books to Read This Summer (LitHub)

A Black Feminist Book List (Tembre Denton-Hurst)

Books About Race & Reproductive Justice (Erica Chidi Cohen)